Coping With Tragedy: A Cultural Comparison


Mt. Herzl

The beautiful Mt. Herzl, but on a normal day (aka not today)

It’s amazing how different cultures handle certain things in different ways.

This past week through tomorrow is the most important week of the year in Israel. There are three holidays: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust memorial day) was last week, today has been Yom HaZikaron (the Israeli version of Memorial Day), and tomorrow is Yom Ha’atzmaut (the Israeli Independence Day).

I’ve spent the past four days on a seminar, traveling around the Jerusalem area and engaging in all sorts of activities to commemorate these days. While there is a lot that I could say about Holocaust remembrance and a number of the activities I partook in this past week, I don’t write a travel blog so I will focus on a more personal development related subject: coping with tragedy.

Israel as a nation is in a very different situation in the world and has a very different experience than the United States, which certainly impacts the culture here and the way Israelis commemorate Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. I’m lucky enough to have had the opportunity to be here for these holidays and talk to Israelis about them in order to get a deeper feel for the psychology behind these cultural differences.


Background: Why Israel And The US Are Different

Israel is a small country, about the same size as New Jersey, with a population of approximately 8 million people. In it’s 65 years of existence, Israel has been involved in many wars with its much larger, more populous neighbors, and has been the target of many terrorist attacks. There is a draft, so the vast majority of young Israelis end up spending two years in the military.

Considering the facts above, every family in Israel either has a member who has been killed or the family is close with someone who was killed. And these soldiers or civilians who died will invariably have died close to home. Everyone has experienced a close, personal tragedy here.

Compare that to America, with 300 million people, and no wars fought on American soil since the Civil War. The fact is, most people don’t know anyone who has died fighting for the country. That’s why Memorial Day is about barbecues, beer, and good sales. And the 4th of July is about fireworks and beating our chests. I don’t mean to offend here; this is just my observation, which I believe to be true for the majority of Americans.


Israel Coping With Tragedy

In Israel, Yom HaZikaron is a very somber holiday. No beer, no parties, no barbecues.

Instead, there is a lot of crying. And a lot of remembering. And a lot of people rallying together and displaying their unity by wearing white shirts.

From sunset to sunset during the holiday, no public places of entertainment are open, and on the radio and television, all stations air programming about the lives and actions of the fallen (23,085 soldiers and 2,493 civilian victims of terrorism).

There are two primary things that I noticed about how Israelis cope with their tragedies during this holiday:

  1. They actually spend time remembering, and
  2. They do this as a community rather than in private, individual ways.

I’m sure this is true among military families in the US too, but it isn’t embraced by the entire national culture the way it is here.

For me, today started with a large group of us Americans and about ten Israelis sitting in a circle. Each Israeli took their turn telling the story of a friend or family member of theirs who was killed in battle or in a terrorist attack. These stories were not just about how the person died, but also about who they were when they were alive.

Afterwards, we bused over to Mt. Herzl, the national military cemetery. On an average day, you can walk around Mt. Herzl somewhat freely, seeing a few people here or there. But today, there were 100 thousand people there, most of whom were wearing white. They came in from all around the country, and literally any grave you walked past had people surrounding it paying their respects.

I wish I had an analogy to help convey what this scene was like, but there really is no comparison that I can think of.

Notably, it wasn’t just a huge group of isolated families, each mourning in their own individual way. Instead, it was like one massive, collective mourning unit. People were exchanging stories with each other about their friends or family members. Everyone tried to remember everyone else, which kept their loved ones alive in a certain sense.

Perhaps that is why Israelis leave flowers on these graves instead of rocks. And every grave had flowers, which were all free.

Compare this whole scene with the American “style” of mourning. Again, I can’t speak for every American, but most tend to be very private when it comes to remembering the dead. People shy away from community support (not all of it of course, but a lot) and try to handle their sorrow on their own.

There are also the Israeli sirens. Once at 8:00 PM last night and again at 11:00 AM this morning, there was a one-minute long siren across all of Israel. Literally everyone stops during this minute. Traffic stops and people get out of their cars. Other than the sirens, the only thing you can hear is the birds chirping overhead. When the minute was over, people reawakened and started to move about again. Truly incredible.

And finally, when the sun set today, Yom Ha-atzmaut began. Today is a day of huge celebration for the Israelis, since it is the day they declared independence. To many, it may seem strange that a day of extreme sorrow comes immediately before a day with lots of partying and celebrations. But the message for Israelis is clear: those who died had done so to protect something, and they would be damned if they don’t take advantage of it. Remembering the dead is truly something to do for a lifetime, but it’s also important to get on with life and celebrate the miracle that it is.



Perhaps the geopolitical differences between the nations of Israel and America fully explain their different  practices, in which case there would be nothing to learn from all this.

But I don’t think that is the case. I think that the Israeli system of remembrance is both superior in general and more respectful than the American system, and that us Americans can learn from it and grow in the process.

Do I think the US government should enforce some sort of mandatory “no sales” policy on Memorial Day? Absolutely not.

But I do think that when we experience a tragedy of some sort, we need to be more open about it. Instead of closing ourselves off, let’s accept the help and sympathy of others. And instead of dwelling on the tragedy, let’s remember why it happened and why we need to pick ourselves up off our feet and live our lives afterwards.


photo by: Ethan Ableman

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